Friday, March 4, 2011

The Armory: Park Avenue btwn 66th and 67th

"Part palace and part industrial shed" is how the Park Avenue Armory not-for-profit describes this unique site in NYC.  It was built in the Gilded Age by the elite of NYC between 1877 and 1881, the only armory in the U.S. that has ever been built using only private funds.  It was set up as a place for the most affluent of NYC as a base from which they could participate in the militia (remember folks back then were very much against a "standing army" having fought off British rule), but really it also functioned as a private social club. 

Its interiors were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (see original in situ stained glass at left and right), Stanford White, the Herter Brothers (designers of the now demolished William H. Vanderbilt 5th Avenue mansion), Albert Wagner (who designed the Puck Building at 295-309 Lafayette St.) and other leading artists and decorators of the American Aesthetic Movement (a hodge podge of what people of that time thought was grand and exotic from Greek, Egyptian Asian, Celtic, and Moresque styles) (see ceiling below in the Veterans Room).

 
While armories built later would follow this 7th Regiment Park Avenue Armory in structure and exterior style (castle like--see top photo), none would ever achieve the beauty and artistic richness of this one.  Many of the gas light fixtures built in ornate wrought iron were later electrified (some were combinations of both gas and electricity, called gasolieres) and were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and built by Mitchell Vance & Co. (see left)  The hearths in the Mary Divver Room (the ladies reception room) and the Field and Staff Room (the one with a bar) have original Minton art tiles. 

Each Company within the Armory also had their own lounges (and own decorators) on the 2nd floor. These rooms all had built in or movable pianos, most have intricately carved lockers, some have highly stylized balconies (see above right), most had detailed wall stencils, and all had artwork of all types (from armor and spears (see left) to mounted animal heads).  If you get the chance, try to get a peak at the Company C room (whose by invitation only membership consisted of the millionaires of the millionaires like the Astors and the Vanderbilts) with its original painted ceilings, woodwork and mace-shaped lighting fixtures. 

Beyond all of the retained architecture and design (that is obviously pretty impressive), what really makes this a "must see" is that the not-for-profit is currently working on a restoration of the Armory wherein they are trying to "excavate" and reveal (not replicate) the various layers of architecture and decor in the building (see exposure work at right).  After militias were incorporated into the federally-run military in WWI, during which over half of the 7th Regiment were killed, the Armory fell into disrepair.  The U.S. military was underfunded and did not have the resources to maintain this building, so besides the "redecorating" that happened in the Armory during its heyday, much of the Armory's architectural details and decoration were lost from neglect.  If you can, it is really a once in a lifetime chance to see the in-progress (it is expected to take another 10 years and about $200 million) restoration of a unique historical building in NYC.  I felt like I was on a special architectural archeology tour (email tours@armoryonpark.org or call 212-616-3937 to request a tour).

Oh by the way, you should also visit the Armory if you can attend one of their numerous art shows, musical or theatrical performances, or private "salon-style" shows (held in the 2nd floor Company Rooms) by one of their resident artists or performers.  Check their website (http://www.armoryonpark.org/) for specifics that may be of interest to you.  I personally am planning to attend one of the Shakespearean plays for which the Armory is going to build a theater in the round in the 55,000 sq. ft. column-free space of The Wade Thompson Drill Hall and have the Royal Shakespeare Company for 6 weeks to perform 5 plays.  I can't wait!

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